Garden party: Deng, Bulls hold on to beat Knicks

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Garden party: Deng, Bulls hold on to beat Knicks

NEW YORKLast time around when the Bulls took on the Knicks at Madison Square Garden, it was an eventual occasion, filled with technical fouls, a mild skirmish and a furious rally by the home team to put a scare into their guests.

Just like their December visit to the Big Apple, the Bulls (20-14) took care of business throughout the contest Friday evening, using smothering defense, an up-tempo approach on offense and a season-high scoring effort from Luol Deng (33 points) to dominate their opponent, then letting up late, to allow the Knicks (23-13) to climb out of a 25-point hole before holding on to win, 108-101.

The visitors jumped out to a quick start against their historical rivals, who went with a bigger lineupformer Bulls big man Kurt Thomas (six points) started at power forwardto counter the Bulls size advantage, which was an issue in the two teams earlier meetings this season.

It was a defensive-minded contest in the early going, playing to the guests strengths, and as has been a recent trend, the entire starting lineupincluding Kirk Hinrich (six points, seven assists), who was a game-time decision, but played through a lacerated right elbow and popped bursa sacgot involved early on.

The low-post tandem of Carlos Boozer (17 points) and enthusiastic native New Yorker Joakim Noah (nine points, eight rebounds) were productive, as was an active Rip Hamilton (14 points), while Deng blanketed Knicks superstar Carmelo Anthony (39 points) on defense, all leading to the Bulls, pushing the tempo offensively, quickly extending a slim cushion into a double-digit edge.

New York made a push at the end of the frame, going on a 6-0 run to briefly make it a single-digit affair, buoyed by Anthony and center Tyson Chandler (18 rebounds), but behind Dengs efficient scoring, the Bulls ended the opening period with a 29-18 lead.

Solid play from the Bulls second unit allowed the visitors comfortable winning margin to slightly balloon, despite the hustle plays made by Thomas, the leagues elder statesman.

Taj Gibson (12 points), another Big Apple native, and Nate Robinson (five points), who started his career with the Knicksthey were joined on the court by backup center Nazr Mohammed, who also had a stint in New Yorkwere catalysts for the Bulls, but it has to be noted that the poor play of the hosts in general and Anthony, in particular, was a big part of the Bulls success.

Upon Deng coming back into the contest, it was immediately evident that he maintained his hot handhe knocked down seven of his first eight shots, including his first three three-point attemptsas he continued to torch the hosts and at least initially, decisively seize the upper hand in the battle of All-Star small forwards with Anthony, on both ends of the floor, as the lead continued to grow.

From transition offense to stifling defense, long-range shooting, dominant rebounding and everything in between, the Bulls controlled the game, improving as the first half went along and headed into the intermission with a 57-36 advantage.

After the break, the contest continued to be a laugher, as the Knicks ineptitude on offense persisted, while the Bulls, still pushing the pace, took advantage of the lopsided situation, with the body language of the home team showing their frustration.

Anthony and Knicks sixth-man extraordinaire J.R. Smith (13 points) struggled through miserable shooting nights and without another consistent scoring optionpoint guard Raymond Felton was sidelined due to injury and power forward Amare Stoudemire (five points), still in a reserve role, wasnt at 100 percent after missing the early portion of the campaignbut they kept chucking up shots.

As the Bulls are prone to due, they allowed the hosts to slice into the huge deficit they faced, by way of Anthony, arguably the leagues best pure scorer, catching fire and making the game, if not close, more competitive, to the pleasure of the Garden audience, who had previously booed their beloved squads efforts on the evening.

But despite the superstars brief virtuoso performance, the Knicks couldnt sustain the effort and the headway they made disappeared, with the Bulls buckling down on defense and putting a halt to the hosts momentum to head into the final stanza, ahead, 82-60.

A thunderous Boozer dunk set the tone at the outset of the fourth quarter and although the Knicks continued to threaten to make the deficit more manageable with their dangerous outside marksmanship, the efforts of the much-maligned Bulls power forward, currently having one of his better stretches since arriving in Chicago, as well as Marco Belinelli (12 points), ensured the visitors maintained their sizable edge.

The forward duo of Deng and Boozer shouldered the offensive burden for the BullsNoah picked up his fifth foul with 7:16 remaining, but the visitors didnt miss a beat, at least at firstand heading into the games stretch run, they were still flirting with a 20-point winning margin.

Gibson also chipped in late, but while Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau, a perfectionist until the endand perhaps aware of his teams penchant for giving away leadskept many of his regulars in the contest and for good reason, as New York refused to give up the fight, and whittled away at the Bulls lead, gradually creeping closer until an Anthony triple made it a seven-point game, 103-96, with 1:07 remaining.

Noah eventually fouled out, much to the delight of the fans in his hometown, but though it was just shy of a heart-racing finish, the Bulls managed to knock down clutch free throws to seal the deal and once again, silence the raucous crowd, at least the fans who stuck around for the exciting conclusion.

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Nikola Mirotic reflects on pump fakes, maddening March, future in Chicago

Nikola Mirotic reflects on pump fakes, maddening March, future in Chicago

If there's a more maddening player in the Eastern Conference than Nikola Mirotic, that player's psychologist should be getting paid double considering Bulls fans have been talking to themselves about Mirotic so much over the past three years.

And as they've reached no conclusion on Mirotic, along with many other sage minds, only one thing is for certain: March is his month.

Meaning it's the month where it becomes maddening to watch him play and probably equally as maddening for his teammates who've watched his inconsistencies for the better part of four months or so.

Averaging 16.0 points and 5.9 rebounds in 41 career March games, it's the only full month where Mirotic averages in double figures for his career—meaning there's a lot of inconsistencies to wade through to get to the proverbial pot of gold.

In 2014-15, he emerged as the NBA's best fourth-quarter scorer that month when the Bulls were without both Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler. Last season, he came back fresh after an appendectomy took a big chunk of his year.

This year, there's no big macro reason. He's just playing definitively, making quick movements and it's paying off as his two best scoring games took place within a four-day span (28 against both Detroit and Milwaukee).

"Right now, you see I'm shooting without hesitation," Mirotic said to CSNChicago.com. "Just catch and shooting. It's a great feeling."

No word on whether Mirotic hears the fans in the arena or the twitterverse screaming for him to ditch the pump fake that he actually admits it got in his head, but this season has been a roller coaster of the most dramatic kind, as the Bulls are still vying for playoff positioning with eight games remaining in the regular season.

"Sometimes, especially when I'm reading you guys (media), Niko pump fake, pump fake," Mirotic said with a smile. "Okay, no more pump fakes, just fire that ball. I'm laughing because you guys are (right)…that's true. You guys want me to shoot. It doesn't look good when you pump fake every time you have a wide-open shot."

Being penciled in as a training camp starter due to the need for floor spacing, Taj Gibson quickly outplayed Mirotic for the power forward spot. Then Mirotic's up and down, down and up, season began.

Kind of like his pump fake that often drew more defensive attention for it's predictability than effectiveness, stability has been hard to find for a player many have been waiting on since the day he was drafted in 2011.

"I know the defenses are ready for my pump fake so now just like, shoot the ball," Mirotic said. "I've been spending a lot of hours working on my shot before practice, after practice, trying to catch the feeling."

Better late than never or too late?

That's the question surrounding Mirotic and he knows it, being aware of his status as a restricted free-agent-to-be, along with his trade value a month ago being so low, the Bulls could only get a future second-round pick for him from teams.

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With the Bulls having so many questions going into the future, who knows if they want to go through the up-and-down, down-and-up cycle with a talented player yet again, with a big-time financial commitment.

In a sense, Mirotic knows he's left plenty on the table as far as his play through the years and seems to be content with playing with a sense of freedom as the season concludes, whether he's back with the Bulls or not for next year and beyond.

"I just wanna leave a good impression for the Bulls," Mirotic said. "Whatever decision they make. It's been a pleasure. A lot of people dream to be here, I was one of those guys when I was in Europe. I was really like, I wanna go there and play for the Bulls. The history they have. For me, it's a dream come true. Whatever decision they make, I make, whatever. I don't know. The years here have been great. I know it's been up and down. It's been a pleasure and I just wanna finish right."